Sunday July 29 2012
For a week now, space has been on the minds of many. Me, my mind jumps to the moon at the thought of space. The first time I thought of space and the moon in association with man was 1969. Before this, space and the moon to me represented part of the heavens that were beyond man’s conception. These were realms only known to the gods…..
But first things first. Why has space preoccupied these minds this week?
Last Monday (23.7.12) the death occurred of Sally Ride. By all accounts, Ride was of tender age, at 61 years. But as a lady of her time and space, she had achieved a lot. In the 1970s, USA was a patriarchal monster. That’s why Ride made history when she broke the monopoly of American men to join NASA in 1978.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an agency of the United States government. It’s responsible for the nation’s civilian space programme and for aeronautics and aerospace research. On June 18th 1983 Rice was the first American woman in space as a crew member of the Space Shuttle, Challenger. By that, she turned around the bully boys of USA and woke them up to the fact of their Wild West primitive nature. Ride will live beyond the end of time as a lesson to USA for that. May she rest in peace!
As Americans saw it, as their men were capable of conquering the Americas (the Wild West), so were they capable of conquering the “heavens”. Only White men of the 1st superpower of the world were capable of engaging in such a game of survival. Only they had the stamina, the resilience. The rough and tumble of the unknown was not for their women. It was not for other Whites. Nor was it for Blacks, least of all their women.
So, in 1969, “man” took the first steps on the moon. That man was Neil Armstrong, an American. Putting his left foot down first, Armstrong declared: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I was in secondary school and had access to radio and almost all the newspapers. So, I was among those who were caught up in the grip of the euphoria over “man” conquering the “heavens”.
Still, long after the excitement, what preoccupied my mind was the meaning of Armstrong’s words. By now I’d acquired enough English to understand the words. Why were they a repetition? “Man” and “mankind” mean the same. Why did Armstrong repeat himself? It’d seem he was overwhelmed by his questioning conscience. It’s said that Armstrong was supposed to say: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
This makes more sense. Armstrong, a man, only made a small step from the spaceship to put his foot onto the lunar surface. However, that small step was history for mankind. Mankind had been able to conquer space and explore the moon, a giant leap. That leap was a result of one small step by Armstrong, an American. Credit to an American man, then.
As to the other, a small step for man meant a small step made by a combination of diverse peoples. Credit to all those involved in space exploration. This included Russians, who were actually the first to go into space. That, therefore, gave them credit also. For acknowledging Russians’ work in this research, Armstrong attracted the ire of the Americans. It’s said he got into trouble over that.
Meanwhile, while in USA they were eating their heart out over “a man” or “mankind”, we were eating our heart out over the plight of the three American astronauts. A plight of a different sort all together, as expressed by one of our elders in the village. We were in August holidays, 1969.
A group of us were ambling along, generally in the direction of a ‘watering hole’. Sensing our aim, and guessing where we’d end up for the evening, an elder accosted us. He knew that among us was a young man from a cattle-keeping family, which meant riches. And he knew that the lad from the cattle-keeping family was resourceful of pocket and generous of heart. Wise sort, therefore, in engaging us in conversation, Mzee knew we’d go with him and sit together during the local-brew imbibing session!
That’s how he greeted us with a question: “Yes, young men of ‘senior’ knowledge, have you passed the daylight well?” We mumbled some polite response, expressing our hope that he also passed the daylight well.
Then he resumed: “Yes, you who’ve read book wisdom, tell me. I’ve heard about these three men who’ve visited the moon. And I’ve heard that they took all of eight days. Now tell me, how did they manage to quench their thirst for all those days? Does it mean there are bars along the way to the moon?”
That became our focus of conversation during our imbibing of that evening. But explaining how the men assuaged their thirst in their capsule was another thing.
Even then, comprehending why Americans liked to cling onto petty divisions was more difficult. Who does not know that pooling energies and brains gives faster and better results?